Mental Health and the Musician: Running the Road to Recovery

Far too often, our sense of self-worth and success as musicians are inextricably linked to each other. But this can be dangerous since it easily could lead to serious mental health problems. I know this to be true, because I’ve been there. From despair, to reflection, to recovery — my journey as a striving musician has taught me to look inward and find joy in all aspects of my life.

I’ve always been a stressed out person. But the stress got to be too much when I was in undergrad, and my friend encouraged me to try therapy. Fortunately, I had a great experience with this process. But in 2013 I had a setback when I experienced a painful breakup that rocked my world. I entered a deep bout of depression, to the point where I was sent to the emergency room for suicidal ideations. A year later, I scheduled far too many performances in one week. By the fifth performance, my arms were in pain, which I stubbornly tried to push through. Before I knew it, I was in tears after the concert and couldn’t bend my elbows. I was diagnosed with two pinched ulnar nerves.

Upon finishing my master’s degree five months ago, I had zero job prospects, no place to live, and a serious lack of direction. I was diagnosed with depression/anxiety and started taking medication. I felt like I’d hit rock bottom for a third time. I’m here. I survived. And I’m still playing the instrument I love. But how? How do we keep going when we feel like we’ve hit rock bottom? How do we, as perfectionists and artists, deal with — or even embrace — the idea of being imperfect?

Civic Fellow Alex Hoffman has added self-care, such as exercise and therapy, to her routine to improve her musicianship. (Photo by Jarrett McCourt)

I engaged in lots of self-care regiments following each of these experiences. For me, this included taking a lighter course load, learning how to go with the flow, and attending lots of therapy. But on a day to day basis, sometimes this was (and still is) very difficult for me. I don’t like saying no to things. I don’t like “taking a break.” I don’t like going with the flow; I love to plan and know exactly what I’m doing from one moment to the next. However, I’ve learned to practice these habits, and they’re something I’m working on every single day.

Consider the following: When was the last time you practiced self-care? I mean, really practiced self-care? When was the last time you exercised? When was the last time you wrote down your thoughts? When was the last time you talked to someone about your problems?

What we do as musicians often feels like a private journey. For example, we spend hours in a practice room, listening to recordings of ourselves (and often hating it), writing down notes about our own playing, listening back to lessons, doing score study…the list goes on and on! We often feel like our work is never done, and as a result, we never stop working. But this can be dangerous. I encourage all musicians to take their ambition and drive and consider channeling it into something that has nothing to do with music. I chose running.

Running started as something to pass the time – I would run 1-3 miles along the lake every so often. Then I signed up for a 5k. Then a 10k. Then a half marathon. Finally, this past May, I ran my first full marathon with sights on running many more throughout my lifetime. But this wasn’t without lots of effort, and most importantly lots of time. I deliberately took time away from my daily routine of practicing and started running. I treated it like practicing the flute: I set aside time, set specific goals, and did my best to execute said goals. I accepted that not every day would be perfect, but I did it for enjoyment. I didn’t have to feel competitive. It was refreshing. The other large part of my success in self-care has come from therapy.

Shameless plug: I really believe everyone should try therapy. So much of what we do as musicians is solitary and built on non-verbal communication. The ability to articulate your innermost thoughts and feelings is invaluable. You may think, “I’m happy, I don’t need this,” but that’s not the point. I think of therapy like exercise for my mind. Once a week I take a step back and observe my habits and behaviors. I’m given things to work on and then I spend the next week developing those skills. Did I feel guilty about not practicing and spending my time doing other things? Every day. But I have Noa Kageyama’s article, “The Importance of Mentally Disengaging from Practice,” hanging on my wall to see every day. It’s worth a read.

I often have to convince myself that it’s okay to “mentally disengage.” I have to convince myself that practicing self-care will benefit me as an artist. Why can’t we engage in self-care for the sake of self-care, and not just to benefit our musicianship? I’m still grappling with this question.

Being a musician is an all-encompassing job. I encourage you to tell yourself that mentally disengaging is okay. That it’s good for you! That you need it. That your life can be dedicated to music, but music doesn’t have to be the single defining thing that you do. Our lives as musicians are complicated and beautiful all at once, and we should have some sort of outlet beyond our instrument. I encourage you to find that outlet.

National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
Online Therapy:
Running 101:

Written by Civic Fellow and flute Alex Hoffman